I want to be a polymath.
Others want to learn something specific. I want to be able to learn many things. More specifically, I want the ability to learn anything, the ability to be prodigious at anything. I want to be a master learner.
But my last learning challenge exposed the truth that I am nowhere near this dream. I wanted to learn “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” the most difficult piano piece from the Oscar-winning musical La La Land, in 30 days. I had never played piano before, yet I was trying to learn La La Land’s most difficult piano piece in a month. I had hypotheses about how to learn piano, but I had no plan. I had a short deadline, yet I procrastinated. I was naive, I was lazy, and I was lost, so I spent the whole of March reflecting on this last challenge and on my learning process. After much revision, observation, and experimentation, here is my learning process, in every detail:
Note: This is my step-by-step process for learning. I’ve presented it in bare bones with the occasional comment for clarity. Like this.
Note’s note: This process is compiled and adapted from the books, articles, and educational videos of many learning experts. If you find anything of value here, the credit goes to them. The full list of references is at the bottom of this post.
Finding What To Learn
What do I want to learn? (If you already know, skip to “Motivation”)
- Indulge your curiosities.
- E.g. if you’re interested in photography, simply grab your phone and take some pictures. No need to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment right away. If you’re interested in working out, do some calisthenics in your room and see how it feels. Simply give it a try.
- Choose one thing you want to learn, then set the rest aside in a “to-learn” list.
- Create motivation. Use this sparingly. You should not constantly need motivation. If you do, pick something else to learn.
- Surround yourself with entertainment related to the skill. E.g. Tim Ferriss watching movies about cooking. In the 4-Hour Chef, when author Tim Ferriss was taking a break from learning cooking, he would read magazines about cooking, watch documentaries about cooking, watch movies about cooking, etc.
- Specify your target performance level.
- One sentence of what you want to be able to do.
- Must be measurable (“I want good endurance” is not measurable. “I want to finish a 26.2-mile marathon in under 4 hours” is measurable.)
- Specify deadline and milestones.
- “I give myself 6 months to reach my goal” = deadline. “By 3 months, I want to finish a 26.2-mile marathon in under 5 hours” = milestone.
- Calculate time you’re able to allocate, then set a specific time for practice and study. If possible, set the same exact time each day for practice and study. E.g. If you’re practicing and studying on weekdays, practice and study at 6:30 PM, Monday through Friday. Do not do 5:30 PM on Monday, 9:15 AM on Tuesday, 6:30 PM on Wednesday, etc.
- Ask practitioners if your goal or target performance level is reasonable.
- Don’t underestimate the complexity of a skill or difficulty of a goal.
The Learning Process:
Stakes: Forcing Discipline
- Create a punishment for failing. Quitting is difficult when something is on the line.
- E.g. Create a betting pool with friends, use a website like StickK.com, have a friend check on your progress so you risk losing face if you fail, etc.
Deconstruction: The Information-Gathering Phase
I gather information by interviewing people or by doing research. If you have access to experts (I rarely do), interviewing is better. If you do not have access to experts, you must rely on research.
- Participate and surround yourself with a community. Basically, make friends with those learning the same skill as you. While this isn’t “interviewing,” being involved in a community could lead you to experts.
- Individual mentorship. While this also isn’t “interviewing,” this is an attempt to get a foot-in-the-door to experts.
- Help them (the expert) or let them see you helping them or you being around their community.
- Questions to ask:
- If you had to teach a person to do this in 4 weeks (or whatever short a deadline), what would you do?
- Who’s good at this who shouldn’t be? (find a person with bad attributes, e.g. a short basketball player) The ones who are “good but shouldn’t be” are more likely to have analyzed the skill and to have followed or created a method for learning said skill. E.g. Helio Gracie, the creator of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, had no physical advantages in fighting (he was skinny and unable to do even one chin-up), yet he created a martial art that anyone can use to subdue opponents or attackers much stronger than them.
- Who are the best or most controversial coaches/teachers? The controversial can contain hidden gems.
- Were they able to replicate their results?
- To find the differences between someone who’s a regular learner versus fast learner, ask the fast learner: what is something you do that you don’t see anyone else do?
- What’s a piece of advice you’ve used the most?
- Question-Making Guidelines:
- Ask questions that reveal principles or patterns to good performance.
- Research and find 3 or more books, instructional DVDs, online or in-person courses, etc. that teach your skill. I prefer instructional DVDs and courses to books because it takes much longer to find a good book since there are many more books than there are instructional DVDs or courses.
- Survey, skim, and look for common sub-skills, principles, tools, etc. “Survey” means to read titles, table of contents, conclusions, or anything that summarizes content within the book, instructional DVD, course, etc.
- Identify subskills and tools necessary for practice. (e.g. golf club for golf, ingredients for cooking, gym membership or home gym for bodybuilding, etc.)
- Create a checklist of what tools are necessary for practice.
Selection: Finding the 80/20
- After looking at all the ways you can learn, train, or reach your goal, find the 80/20 to your goal. The 80/20 principle states that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. E.g. 90% of a company’s profit comes from 10% of their products. As you can tell by the example, the ratio does not need to be an exact 80:20. You simply choose what gives the most output for the least input. E.g. If you’re learning a language, learn the most common words first because sometimes even a meager 100 words can make up 50% of all that language’s written material.
Sequencing: Building a Syllabus
- Using the information gathered from Deconstruction and Selection, find out what the prerequisites (technically, physically, and emotionally) of your goal or target performance level are.
- E.g. If you want to be able to do a handstand push-up, you must be able to do a push-up, then a wall handstand, then a handstand.
- Create a progression from your current skill level to your target performance level or goal.
- E.g. For learning a new language, broadly, the progression could go from pronunciation to grammar to vocabulary to phrases to sentences, etc.
While practice can be unspecific, drilling is about building specific habits; therefore, I prefer the word “drilling” over “practicing.” However, I will still use the words “practice” and “practicing” with their general meaning.
- Review tool checklist to make sure you have everything you need.
- Pick the first sub-skill in your progression.
- E.g. Pronunciation.
- Drill it. Practice it.
- E.g. Practice your vowels
- Get feedback by comparing your work to the ideal. Drilling and practicing are only valuable with feedback. The quicker and more frequent the feedback is, the more valuable practice/drilling is. Primarily, you are looking for mistakes to eliminate.
- E.g. Continuing with the language learning example, practice your vowels and have a native speaker give feedback on your pronunciation. If you don’t have access to an expert, record yourself speaking, then compare your pronunciation with a native speaker’s. If you’re trying to learn Yoga, get into a pose, and have an expert critique it. If you don’t have access to an expert, film yourself in the pose, then compare it with an expert’s pose. You always want the expert to be by your side to provide instant feedback. If you can’t do that, find another way to get feedback.
- Adjust. Feedback is when you’re looking for mistakes. This is when you correct them.
- Repeat steps 3-5 until you’re satisfied with your skill level, then move on to the next sub-skill in your progression.
My last learning challenge was embarrassing. Instead of learning to play “Mia and Sebastian’s theme” perfectly, I learned to play a shortened version of “Mia and Sebastian’s theme” poorly. Following this challenge, my plan was to continue with more challenges on different skills, including portrait drawing, cooking, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. My new plan is, instead, to continue learning piano while practicing the skill of Learning by applying everything I know of the process. Once I am satisfied with my piano play, I will move on to portrait drawing, then to cooking, then to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, then to more and more and more until I have mastered learning—until I become a polymath.
Jarvis, Chase. “How I Learn ANY SKILL + How You Can Too | ChaseJarvis RAW”. Filmed [September 2015]. YouTube video, 12:53. Posted [September 2015]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d95WP96DI3I
Kaufman, Josh. The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast. London: Portfolio Penguin, 2013.
Ferriss, Timothy. The 4-Hour Chef: the Simple Path to Cooking Like A Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. Boston: New Harvest, 2012.
Higbee, Kenneth L. Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Print.
Young, Scott. “Learn Faster with The Feynman Technique”. Filmed [August 2011]. YouTube video, 04:07. Posted [August 2011]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrNqSLPaZLc